Praying for Justice When God Seems Silent
I saw it there, a black-and-white magnet on my friend’s refrigerator. Inwardly, I rolled my eyes.
“There’s no use trying,” Alice said: “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” -Lewis Carroll
I had seen this whimsical quote before, many times, and perhaps this why my inner cynic rolled her eyes. Believe six impossible things before breakfast. It seemed a quote destined for refrigerator magnets, charm bracelets, and quirky handmade prints sold on Etsy.
Cute? Yes. But what does cute have to do with the real world? “What good is a bunch of wishful thinking?” my inner cynic demanded.
What good is a bunch of wishful thinking? Now this was getting personal. I pictured myself leaning over my laptop, every morning before breakfast, typing prayers into Facebook posts. And I wondered,
Was it all just wishful thinking?
I began praying on Facebook on May 8, 2014, a few days after I learned about the horrific kidnapping of 257 Nigerian schoolgirls. The news was so stunning that it seemed life could not go on as usual. Should I donate money? Write letters? Take to the streets?
As I considered options I began, almost as an afterthought, to post prayers. Everyday I opened up Facebook and typed: I have decided to post a prayer for the girls who have been kidnapped in Nigeria every day… until further notice.
As ‘until further notice’ turned into weeks, and then months, I continued to pray daily with a growing group of friends who hit the ‘like’ button or commented, “hear our prayer.” Sometimes my prayers were confident:
June 26, 2014: Lord, I have decided to ask for more. Today I pray that you would not only bring these girls back alive, I pray that some of them would become leaders in Nigeria and in the larger world. Give them deep compassion for those who suffer, and wisdom that has been forged by fire. May we read this headline in a decade, “The Chibok girls who returned to change the world.” I am not asking for something that you are unable to do. Amen.
It is hard to believe six impossible things before breakfast…for six months.
More often, I was honest about my doubts:
August 4, 2014: Lord, I’m not sure what to say. I wanted so badly to return to my computer and find out that these girls were home with their families. Even as I type these words I sense a certain selfishness to them, as if I’m saying ‘Could you please wrap this up so that I can have a beautiful moment this morning?’ Lord, in your mercy…
And, on the morning I learned that dozens of others had been kidnapped:
August 17, 2014: How long, O Lord? These men of Boko Haram are not gods. Please, show your power; hear the cries of these girls, boys, women, and men. Please, make things right in the way that only you can. And please, act soon. Lord, in your mercy…
As the months went on, the “How long, O Lord?” refrain increased in intensity, even as my ‘daily prayers until further notice’ trickled into half-hearted attempts at hope several times a week. It is hard to believe six impossible things before breakfast…for six months. It seemed like throwing my wishful thoughts into a silent abyss, and as the silence grew, my wishes dimmed.
I began to feel foolish, and even wondered if I was embarrassing God. My prayers were public, and this seemed increasingly problematic. As I pleaded for rescue, hope and healing; the headlines shouted government corruption, death, and kidnappings. Was God even listening? What was the point?
Then Jesus told me a parable about my need to pray always and not to lose heart.
In a certain country there was a government that neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that country there were citizens who kept coming to them and saying, “Bring back our girls.” For a while the officials refused; but later they said to themselves, “Though we have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because these protestors keep bothering us, we will grant them justice, so that they may not wear us out by continually coming.”
Listen to what the unjust officials say. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?
I was surprised by his final question and told him so. “You could have ended it with ‘He will quickly grant justice to them’,” I advised. “And anyway, what do you mean by ‘quickly’?” But Jesus just looked at me in his penetrating Jesus-like way and repeated the question:
When I come, will I find faith on earth?
Oh, faith. Jesus, I thought you might bring that up.
In October, I re-posted an article about the failed cease-fire between Boko Haram and the Nigerian government. The news was especially devastating because just a week before, it had seemed that the girls might be released. Instead, more women and children had been kidnapped. A friend commented on my post with this prayer:
Lord, nothing makes sense, and yet, we trust you.
I was immediately struck by the simplicity of her prayer, then by its audacity. Lord, everything seems to be falling apart. Every beautiful hope we have is crushed. We pray for justice, as you have taught us, but it does not come quickly. Instead injustice, brutal and devastating injustice, comes again and again. Nothing makes sense.
I couldn’t get over these two words: ‘and yet’. And yet, we trust you. How can this be? It is one thing to turn a blind eye to brutal reality, to stay in the places where faith comes easier, to do whatever we can to protect ourselves from deep darkness, and then to say, “We trust you.” It is quite another to step into the painful silence of unanswered prayer, to work for justice and find corruption, to look into the eyes of those who suffer and say, “And yet, we trust you.”
It is one thing to turn a blind eye to brutal reality…and to say, “We trust you.” It is quite another to step into the painful silence of unanswered prayer, to work for justice and find corruption, to look into the eyes of those who suffer and say, “And yet, we trust you.”
When Jesus says that he comes to find faith on earth, maybe he is listening for the ‘and yet’.
This is hard to hear when our goals are beautiful and right, but faith is not confidence that a particular outcome will come to pass. “Bring back our girls” is a demand we make of governments and terrorist organizations, not an ultimatum we shout at the Almighty. And this is true even when our longings for justice are God-given, even when this is the work God has given us to do, even when these outcomes are what we mean when we pray, “Your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.”
No, faith is not confidence in a particular outcome. Faith is rather to step into deep darkness, refusing to let go of the hand that leads us along. And as we learn to do this, we become the kind of people who can be used to do the work of God in this world, unconditionally relying on the only one who can do impossible things.
AUTHOR BIO: Jennifer Pelling is a Presbyterian elder at an urban, multi-racial church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She is also a seminary graduate, freelance writer, part-time secretary, and mother of two ferocious young girls. She blogs about her chickens (and other topics) at www.youareherestories.com and www.longdaysandshortyears.com.
Read more articles from this issue, “Hearing the Voices of Peoples Long Silenced”: Gender Justice 2014!